HearthStone

A Retrospective on The Descent of Dragons Meta

hearthstone 6 - A Retrospective on The Descent of Dragons Meta
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Hey all, J_Alexander_HS back again to take a look back on the current meta and how things have shaped up since the release of DoD.

The Overall Story

Leading into the expansion, we were just coming off what was arguably the worst meta the game had ever seen, thanks to the Doom in the Tomb event. Shaman was represented at about 40% of the legend ladder and the game wasn't really worth playing if your goal was enjoyment.

While players were ready to leave the Shaman dominated meta, this hope was short lived. Following the release of DoD, Galakrond Shaman quickly took over ladder, resulting in some emergency balance adjustments shortly after release. Mogu, Corrupt Elementalist, Sludge Slurper, and Faceless Corrupter all saw nerfs to try and rein in the archetypes' dominance.

However, the power level of DoD was simply too high to be constrained by a single set of balance changes. Within about a month we were seeing another balance patch that hit 7 more cards: Fiendish Rites, Scion of Ruin, Ancharrr, Dragon's Pack, Invocation of Frost, Necrium Apothecary, and Dragonqueen Alexastrasza. Galakrond Shaman had already been nerfed heavily, but it's performance had rebounded to the point it needed to be changed again (and the balance team wanted to make sure they didn't have to nerf it three times). Deathrattle Rogue was causing people fits over a negative play experience (draw Apothecary and win), while a few other targets took a smaller shot.

Finally, we have seen the Galakrond's Awakening adventure bring Dragon Hunter into the forefront of the meta, lend some support to Galakrond Warrior and Highlander Mage, Quest Hunter, Quest Druid, and started people earnestly experimenting with Embiggen Druid.

Speaking of Embiggen Druid and the various nerfs, it's worth mentioning that, throughout these metas, we have seen a number of cards break the 70% mulligan win rate mark. These included Necrium Apothecary, Ancharrr, and Breath of Dreams. That is insane, to be blunt about it. We're talking about Prince-Keleseth-levels of power here. Games are not at their most enjoyable when their course is determined so largely by the opening hands. Thankfully 2 of those 3 have seen direct balance changes, while the third deck eventually fell out of favor, due in no small part to the low skill ceiling.

Where We Stand Now

While games are no longer as heavily decided by the opening mulligan, they are still heavily decided by small numbers of cards and interactions package by each major meta deck. As things currently stand now, we exist in what I call the Scam meta. We have a situation where every good deck that exists does a handful of things that far exceed the power curve of the other cards in the game. Many games are determined by the answer to the question, "which deck does its broken thing first?"

Did you draw your Galakrond while your opponent didn't? You're probably going to win. Did your opponent have their Pocket Galaxy early? You're probably going to lose. Dragonqueens, Zephyrs, Branns, Renos, Togwaggles, and their like can be backbreaking on what are otherwise even game states. While games have more complexity to them than that, there's no denying that these big central cards can – in some cases – cause the entire game up to the point they are played to stop mattering if unchecked.

Those are only the big players, however, with many other cards like Stormhammers, Rotnest Drakes, Breaths of Dreams, Crystologies, and Quests playing roles that are just as large in determining games, but not as flashy.

On the positive end, the net result of this is that we have a meta with a great deal of variety and fairly good balance between the top strategies. This is satisfying to some extent. On the negative end, however, this state of affairs appears to persist because, well, lots of scam decks means any deck is capable of scamming any other deck. This can lead to an appreciable number of games where wins or loses are simply to be shrugged off, because they were determined by who drew their big thing first, or who randomly generated the right cards at the right time.

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That, of course, only refers to the good decks. The sheer power of the meta decks, as they stand now, is rather unforgiving to off-meta choices. It's hard work to beat a Galakrond when you don't have your own. It's hard to beat Zephyrs and Dragonqueen if you don't have your own. Many older mechanics and decks aren't just outclassed by a little; they're in entirely different leagues. When it comes to Rogue, for instance, I have experimented with a great number of alternative lists that weren't Galakrond. Nothing feels like it even comes close to the power level available to me if I simply play the good card instead.

Looking Forward

I find myself nervous about the meta moving into rotation. The current state of affairs is reminiscent of what happened following the rotation after Kobolds and Catacombs. Because so much power was packed into the Ungoro/Frozen Throne/Kobolds sets, the next year of metas was largely determined by cards from those same sets. While Witchwood, Boomsday, and Rumble all offered some new ideas as one would expect, the best deck archetypes were largely static. New cards simply slotted into the best existing shells.

The major exception to that were the Odd/Even decks from Witchwood. While they created new archetypes, the play experience they created was negative and their removal warranted. The preemptive removal of Baku and Genn from standard might strike you as having occurred long ago, and it sort of did. In Hearthstone, a year is a long time. It's worth remembering that Baku and Genn would still be in Standard today otherwise.

For perspective, that's how long every Highlander, Galakrond, Quest, and Dragon-synergy card will exist.

This is troubling because, right now, most of the power in meta decks derive their power from Uldum/Rise of Shadows/Descent of Dragons sets. Yes, there are some impactful things leaving from the current meta (notable inclusions are: Shudderwock, Town Crier, Pocket Galaxy, Thunderhead, Zilliax, Snip-Snap, Loti, Mass Hysteria, Spirit of the Frog, Zentimo, and most of the Paladin class), but these losses are relatively small in number. Only a few are represented in major lists and core to their strategy.

Assuming none of those losses get replaced with comparable effects by the entire new set we'll be seeing, there are a number of decks that don't actually even lose anything substantial, like Dragon Hunter and Galakrond Rogue. It just so happens to be the case that these decks are also currently tier 1 in the meta. While it might be tempting to say, "we can just nerf them," remember that we still have a full suite of Quest, Highlander and Galakrond lists sitting right below them as well, ready and willing to move up if the opportunity presents itself.

That's not to say it necessarily will be a repeat of the Kobolds years. Perhaps something about the big unannounced announcement will make a huge difference. It's hard to imagine quite what that would be, but I'm open to being surprised.

It's also possible that the new sets will keep pace in power with the DoD meta decks, introducing new ideas that rival the power level of the existing archetype without simply slotting into them. This is a difficult goal to achieve (balance always is), but even if achieved it could come with similar feelings of "drew the good card," just with new (and perhaps old) cards. It's also worrying that – if new sets do keep up in power – we might simply see standard become a more degenerate format, much like how Wild operates.

Your Thoughts

What do you think? What important meta details need to be highlighted? How important do you see rotation being? Do you think new archetypes are coming, or are we going to see a lot of the same for some number of months to come? Let us know in the comments

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